Make a Difference Whether Your Backyard is 400 Acres, 40 Acres or 4/10 of an Acre

In the era of massive habitat destruction, we can’t afford to even write off postage stamp urban backyards as a source of habitat for wildlife. Now, I’ve never had pheasants in my yard, but I’ve seen them in a nearby marsh and last summer wild turkeys foraged through the front yard and roosted atop a neighbor’s house.
The photo shows a pair of mallards in my dinner table-sized backyard pond. They’ve been using it in the afternoon for over a week. I suspect the pair is nesting somewhere close. They dabble in the pond and then wander the backyard before flying off.
People push me to rake my lawn, drown it in weed chemicals and ‘tidy up.” But I leave it shaggy. Why? Nesting songbirds flock to my yard to pick up bits and pieces of dead plant material for nests. This spring, a robin used such material to build a nest in a grapevine thicket atop a lattice on the garage. I’ve also seen blue jays and mourning doves gathering material here. The robins and wasps also use the pond’s mud for nesting material. During dry spells, local birds, insects and squirrels drink from my humble pond – the only source of nearby water in our well-drained urban neighborhood. I let ragweed and sunflowers grow in odd corners. The cardinals love ragweed seed and gold finches feast on the sunflowers every year.
I leave dead branches, trees (when safe) and stumps for bees to nest and insects for woodpeckers to eat. I spotted a huge pileated woodpecker hammering on a three-foot high stump in a neighbor’s yard two weeks ago. Once, a chickadee hammered out a hole in a dead tree in my yard and raised a brood. I also leave larger dead branches on the ground in places where mushrooms off all types sprout and insects feed and nest. I stack cut tree and shrub branches in several spots where birds overnight in winter; and placed a pallet underneath where cottontails find refuge.Over the years, I’ve also established a large diversity of plants in the yard, mostly native trees, flowers, annuals, perennials and even cattails, algae, arrowhead and more in the pond. The pond’s insect life sustains a toad and even a frog. I leave the short-tailed shrews to burrow through the soil eating insects, and even my vegetable garden where they do no damage at all to the plants. Their activity aerates the soil, allows better rain penetration and brings nutrients to the surface layer.
I’ve identified numerous species of birds in the backyard, many more than you’ll see in a yard that has only two-inch high bluegrass and the odd tree. Some people like highly manicured, sterile lawns, but wildlife love them scruffy, diverse and left alone.
While backyards don’t support all the wildlife we love, there’s certainly more habitat and wildlife diversity in my backyard than in a bluegrass lawn or the endless miles of chemically-treated grain fields sprouting across the country, a biological desert if there ever was one.

-Mark Herwig is editor of the Pheasants Forever Journal and Quail Forever Journal. Email Mark at‚Äč